Moreso than at any other time in his presidency, Donald Trump appears to be perilously close to being impeached by the House of Representatives — and potentially even removed by the Senate.
Removal by the Senate still seems like a tall order, given that 20 Republicans would need to join with the 47 Democrats to find Trump guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors and give him the boot. But some cracks have appeared in Trump’s stalwart GOP defenses as the details of an intelligence community whistleblower have emerged and a devastating record of a call with Ukraine was released. And if the conduct that continues to be exposed is increasingly serious and damning, it’s possible even Republican lawmaker could be convinced to push the president out of office (though the most likely outcome is still impeachment in the House and acquittal in the Senate).
But if it appears that the Senate is turning against the president, Trump may have one move left to save himself: thoroughly tar Vice President Mike Pence with the Ukraine scandal.
It may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but by making it clear how thoroughly he corrupted his administration, Trump may be able to entrench himself in office. Because if Trump is removed, naturally, the vice president takes over. But if Trump and Pence were both removed — without time for a replacement vice president to be found — the presidency falls to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The last thing Senate Republicans would do, short of handing over the nuclear codes to Russia or China, is elevate a Democrat to become president and replace a Republican. Impeaching and removing Trump seems to be a big enough stretch to imagine — but ousting Trump and Pence in one fell swoop, as some have fantasized about, is unthinkable for the GOP.
So what incentives does this create for Trump? As the Ukraine crisis unfolds, he should want to make it known, or at least appear, that Pence was deeply involved in his effort to pressure the foreign government to help him with his 2020 campaign.
He’s already made hints in this direction. On Wednesday, during his rambling speech at the United Nations about the Ukraine mess, Trump suggested that in addition to the already-released July 25 phone call memorandum, he should release records of another call he had with President Volodymyr Zelensky. Then he noted that Pence, too, has spoken with Zelensky — and Trump said those communications should be made public as well.
As New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait pointed out, Pence was also a part of Trump’s group of officials directed to mislead Congress about why military aid to Ukraine had been delayed (it appears the aid was withheld to pressure the government to fulfill Trump’s demands).
“One of them was Mike Pence, who told some confused officials that the aid was being held up ‘based on concerns from the White House about ‘issues of corruption,’'” Chaitwrote. “Pence knew perfectly well what this really meant — asked point blank if the aid was being held up over Ukraine’s failure to investigate Biden, he replied ‘as President Trump had me make clear, we have great concerns about issues of corruption.’ In other words, yes, Ukraine needed to investigate Biden if it wanted the money.”
So in addition to passing messages to Ukraine, Pence was apparently helping to cover up the effort. And the whistleblower complaint, published Thursday, also implicated Pence in at least one of the president’s apparent steps to manipulate the Ukrainian government and signal that the administration’s good graces would be contingent on Trump’s desires being honored.
“I learned from U.S. officials that, on or around 14 May, the President instructed Vice President Pence to cancel his planned travel to Ukraine to attend President Zelenskyy’s inauguration on 20 May,” the whistleblower wrote. “Secretary of Energy Rick Perry led the delegation instead. According to these officials, it was also ‘made clear’ to them that the President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelenskyy until he saw how Zelenskyy ‘chose to act’ in office.'”
Based on this information, it’s not clear exactly how deeply Pence was involved in the Ukraine matter — but it’s possible he could be deep in it.
What would this mean for Republican lawmakers if Pence is clearly implicated in the wrongdoing? If, as I suggest, they’re deeply committed to not removing Pence, they’ll have to find excuses for his behavior. But any excusing of Pence will make it harder to remove Trump from office, because it would also downplay the severity of the president’s behavior. So if Trump is able to smear Pence — rightly or wrongly — with his connection to the Ukraine scandal, he may immunize himself against Senate Republican’s wrath and save himself.
There are a few ways Senate Republicans could undermine such a strategy. (To be clear, at this point I’m in a purely speculative mode.) Assuming they concluded that both Trump and Pence should be removed, but they still want to avoid a Pelosi presidency, Republicans could consent to remove Trump, allow President Pence to pick a new vice president, and then oust Pence. This seems like a pretty preposterous high-wire act, and while it’s conceivable, it seems exceedingly unlikely.
It’s also possible Republicans could try to excuse whatever wrongdoing Pence may be implicated in as the management of a dangerous president. They could thus forgive his actions without extending cover to Trump. Whether or not this would actually work to justify removing Trump but keeping Pence would likely depend on the specifics of the revelations in question, as well as the public perception of the issue. Republicans may be able to twist themselves in knots in their own minds to punish Trump but exonerate Pence, but they will also feel compelled to explain this decision to voters. If they don’t think they can explain this choice, that may just mean that removing Trump at all under this scenario is just even more unlikely.